UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Prevention of alcohol withdrawal seizure recurrence and treatment of other alcohol withdrawal symptoms in the emergency department: a rapid review Koh, Justin; Malczewska, Madeline; Doyle-Waters, Mary M.; Moe, Jessica


Background Patients who experience harms from alcohol and other substance use often seek care in the emergency department (ED). ED visits related to alcohol withdrawal have increased across the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. ED clinicians are responsible for risk-stratifying patients under time and resource constraints and must reliably identify those who are safe for outpatient management versus those who require more intensive levels of care. Published guidelines for alcohol withdrawal are largely limited to the primary care and outpatient settings, and do not provide specific guidance for ED use. The purpose of this review was to synthesize published evidence on the treatment of alcohol withdrawal syndrome in the ED. Methods We conducted a rapid review by searching MEDLINE, Embase, and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (1980 to 2020). We searched for grey literature on Google and hand-searched the conference abstracts of relevant addiction medicine and emergency medicine professional associations (2015 to 2020). We included interventional and observational studies that reported outcomes of clinical interventions aimed at treating alcohol withdrawal syndrome in adults in the ED. Results We identified 13 studies that met inclusion criteria for our review (7 randomized controlled trials and 6 observational studies). Most studies were at high/serious risk of bias. We divided studies based on intervention and summarized evidence narratively. Benzodiazepines decrease alcohol withdrawal seizure recurrence and treat other alcohol withdrawal symptoms, but no clear evidence supports the use of one benzodiazepine over another. It is unclear if symptom-triggered benzodiazepine protocols are effective for use in the ED. More evidence is needed to determine if phenobarbital, with or without benzodiazepines, can be used safely and effectively to treat alcohol withdrawal in the ED. Phenytoin does not have evidence of effectiveness at preventing withdrawal seizures in the ED. Conclusions Few studies have evaluated the safety and efficacy of pharmacotherapies for alcohol withdrawal specifically in the ED setting. Benzodiazepines are the most evidence-based treatment for alcohol withdrawal in the ED. Pharmacotherapies that have demonstrated benefit for treatment of alcohol withdrawal in other inpatient and outpatient settings should be evaluated in the ED setting before routine use.

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